A letter that failed to catch the Editor’s attention!
A couple of weeks ago an article that appeared in the Hindu Sunday magazine is the subject of today’s post. Children are our business and pleasure, and how they’re discussed in the media is an important concern for us. People are influenced by what they read and we believe it is important to scrutinise how children are represented. We invite you to read the article and our comments about the same. The article: https://www.thehindu.com/society/brats-in-the-plane/article29596987.ece?fbclid=IwAR0IAfrO7bC2CawBDQDC_KYlNB_pigJ5k_K1ohw9tQ9XAjABcYTAwOwLFcY
Let’s start with the picture. The illustration leading the article “Brats in the plane” instantly caught our attention. What, if any, is the point of showing two blonde-haired kids rising out of a cardboard plane? Evidently, the newspaper doesn’t bother to find images with familiar features, even sketched ones. These faces look nothing like the “brats” they aim to depict, but this is only a small objection in comparison to the article itself. Since this letter to the editor went unattended, we thought of using our own obscure forum to raise a rant.
Brats in the Media: A ‘desi’ journalist’s article
We found the article ‘Brats in the Plane’ objectionable on several counts, despite actually feeling quite sympathetic towards Mr. Joshi about an uncomfortable flight. However, his diatribe about ‘Indians’ emerged as scornful, self-indulgent and obliquely self-congratulatory since he separates himself from the herd with the claim of having raised “well-behaved” children. The co-passengers are variously addressed as Desi, Punjabo-american and privileged Indians, categories that he doesn’t care to explain.
Children and public spaces
Indian communities have always been porous regarding the separation of children from adults, permitting kids in almost all community activities like films, feasts, festivals, and sometimes even funerals. There is, as Prof. T. S. Saraswathi puts it, a continuity between childhood and adulthood, an unspoken permissiveness towards the presence of children everywhere. The ideology of inclusion has always characterised social life and this is seen as favourable since others are always around. There are several important benefits of this co-existence and continuity, especially for children’s safety and supervision, but also for the elderly, whose lives are greatly enriched by the presence and play of young children. The extended family fulfills several mutually beneficial functions for is members. Thus, children’s presence is something we have learnt to live with, understand and accept and although many find it endearing, it can also be annoying for some.
An anthropologist couple (Nichter and Nichter) wrote about their travel back from India to their home in the US, remarking that as they approached the West, the friendly acceptance of their children gradually transformed into disdain. After being used to the companionship available in their Indian home, even the children seemed uncomfortable with the altered social environment. The interpersonal distance between people and particularly the separation of children in public spaces was something they had forgotten about during their fieldwork years in Southern India.
Aircrafts are the problem and not children
Confined spaces are not comfortable for anyone, and we believe that the sort of bitterness that the author extends towards the children in this article perpetuates negativity towards children and mothers, privileging privacy over companionship, respect and tolerance. It is not easy to travel with young children and in addition to the stress of a child’s discomfort, parents (usually mothers) have to deal with negativity from co-passengers. This anxiety often translates back to the child, often making matters worse for everyone concerned. To add to that, some children are just more difficult to manage than others, and this may have nothing to do with the style of parenting. We do concede to one point, that some children can be disruptive on account of over-indulgence, but turning it into an accusation about groups is hardly justifiable.
The confined space of an aircraft is not the best place to test children’s forbearance and we believe that airline travel has become increasingly cramped for everyone and children are no exception. For infants and toddlers, the unexplained, unending internment within a cramped cabin can be particularly challenging. Even a 3-year-old is too young to fully understand the demands of such a situation, although it is a good time to initiate the process. Caregivers too require compassion and understanding for their task of caring for their child rather than scorn and accusations. These are likely to compound a parent’s already anxious disposition. Furthermore, such declarations also stoke the trend towards low tolerance of young children in public spaces.
NRIs, Desis, Punjaboamerican-speaking Indians living in America and privileged Indians
We want to make a specific note of the labels that are used in this essay. Who exactly is the author talking about? NRIs? Punjabi Americans? Desis? For a columnist, this comes across as crass and unfair. Throughout the article, the author maintains a sense of superiority, of being above ‘these ordinary people who breed brats’.
Why didn’t he speak directly to the little girl?
We believe that if Mr. Joshi had engaged with the young girl, spoken to her directly, retained a sense of humour, lightheartedness, the message would have most likely been understood. It seemed that he was behaving a bit like the child in question. At no point is there any attempt to communicate directly with her. Why? Surely he would know that children, all children, are capable of reason. Spewing venom, demanding attention from the crew could have easily been avoided if Mr. Joshi had used his noteworthy child-rearing skills directly with the child. We’ve tried that, and it works! Children often attend carefully to adults outside the family. Thus the author can be accused of petulance and self-importance, the exact same allegations that he makes towards these loosely constructed groups of Indians and their children.
Specific observations about the article:
- The title: Although this may not have been provided by the author ‘Brats in the plane’ in unfair since it spreads negativity towards young children and their mothers.
- Secondly, the extract “the NRI mum apologised again, her voice close to tears. ‘I’m sorry but she just doesn’t listen to me’.” Suggests that the mother was so harassed by the interaction that she herself was driven to tears, and that was not just on account of her child’s putative misconduct.
- His argument that as “we approach nearer home, we all turn into unruly, entitled brats”, even as adults, smacks of irresponsible overgeneralisation.
- The shrieking boy and the kicking girl both sound like difficult co-passengers, and the annoyance of travelling with such intrusions is never pleasant for anyone, so our rejoinder should not be taken as an endorsement of “bratishness” in young children who throw tantrums and kicks at co-passengers. We feel sorry for him to have experienced this double insult. Controlling the three-year-olds actions was well within the expectation that he had from the grandfather and mother of the young child. “He” can be made to listen, for sure.
- Soon after taking on the grandfather and mother of the screaming boys, Mr. Joshi turns to face his other tormentor’s caregiver, the little girl’s mother whom he quotes as having spoken thus: “’I’m really sorry,’ she said in a Punjabomerican accent, ‘but we’ve been travelling from Houston and she’s really tired.’ She’s anything but tired, I wanted to snarl, but refrained.” We found the labelling of the accent and the dismissal of a child’s fatigue as supercilious and condescending to say the least. What’s with the use of the ethnic label and the accent? She was a single parent travelling with a young child who MUST have been tired in the constrained environment of the aircraft, why does her accept and the child’s action take away the right to be exhausted and restless? This does not condone her actions, but it surely calls for some empathy with the situation.
- Another label appears somewhat later: “privileged desis”. Who are these people he is talking about anyway? Indians living in India, Indians living abroad, Punjabis? Here is an extract: “I’ve been on many flights with lots of high-energy children, why is it that only desi children behave this way? Leave aside flights, why do privileged Indian children feel free to behave badly in all public spaces? It’s because their loving parents giggle and look on proudly when they do. Because their parents reward this behaviour without imposing any limits or consequences. Because desi parents often let the child run away with the idea that he or she is the centre of the universe. This leads to young adults who have no civic sense, who have little consideration for others, who always try to jump the queue, who scream when they want and kick how they want.”
Meanwhile, here are some images of children enjoying their travels to near and far places to change the tenor of this post! Thanks to Pooja and Reshu for their generous sharing of these images.
 Nichter, Mimi & Nichter, Mark. (1994). A Tale of Simeon: Reflections on Raising a Child While Conducting Fieldwork in Rural South India. In J. Cassell (Ed.), Children in the field: Anthropological reflections. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.